Ripped from the Pages of History

Jack the Ripper has proved an invaluable source of inspiration and imagination for writers and filmmakers for more than a century since his grisly rampage in late-1800s London. True-crime investigators have posited many ideas as to the sociopath’s identity, while in fiction and film, the character himself has battled wits with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and H.G. Wells.

The Limehouse Golem, an excellent 2016 British film based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel and directed by Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Medina, isn’t about the Ripper, but its maniacal fictional killer shares roots with the real-life butcher. Grisly, intelligent and witty, the movie will appeal to fans of horror, mystery and history in fairly equal doses. Librarians, too!

Quiky actor Bill Nighy (in a role designed for the late Alan Rickman, to whom the film is dedicated) plays Scotland Yard inspector John Kildare, given a particularly notorious and baffling case by an officious superior anxious to divert blame from himself after the Yard’s failure to stop the killings and nab the perp. Dubbed the “Limehouse Golem” by the press, the ghoul delights in signing and staging his heinous work—like Jack would do in the the future.

Kildare’s career on the force has languished because it’s rumored he’s homosexual. Though never explicitly stated, this aspect of the character is a crucial element in one of the film’s subtexts about gender expectation and exploitation. Because of his reputation, Kildare is condescended to and disdained
by colleagues.

The random murders end as the trial of Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) begins. She’s accused of poisoning her husband, failed author John (Sam Reid). In short order, Inspector Kildare finds several threads running through both cases. From an impoverished childhood Lizzie grew into a music hall celebrity; this feeds the sensationalism that paints her as a gold-digging black widow.

Kildare suspects the young woman is a victim of prejudice (as he is) and tries to save her from the scaffold, at the same time trying to identify the Golem. In fact, as he starts to connect the various webs of the Golem’s victims, it looks like Lizzie might have eliminated the murderer herself.

The Limehouse Golem is a whodunit and a terrific period piece. As a whodunit, it has a marvelous atmosphere, nailing the feel and flavor of Victorian England, particularly the seedier sites.

One recurring location is a music hall, a popular lower-to-middle class venue where comic and bawdy musical routines play out. The headliner is wildly popular cross-dresser Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), who’s first young Lizzie’s mentor. Fairly soon, however, Lizzie becomes a star, in the process attracting the attention of reporter John Cree, whom she marries and is then accused of killing.

The film’s narrative goes through a series of flashbacks, paralleling Inspector Kildare’s investigations. Like Dan, an actual entertainer of the time, two more of Kildare’s suspects are rooted in fact as well as fiction: novelist George Gissing and Karl Marx (yes, that Marx!).

What ties all the disparate characters together is a book in the Reading Room of the City Library. In it, the murderer has annotated the margins. Kildare must find out whose handwriting has the same characteristics as the scribbling.

Top-notch performances boost the clever script adapted by Jane Goldman from Ackroyd’s novel, Dan Leno & the Limehouse Golem. In an unusual (for him) non-comic role, Nighy is his usual superb self, but the real delight here is Olivia Cooke, whose character is seen in several guises—street person, singer, abused wife, accused murderess.

It’s much better than the bigger-budgeted Murder on the Orient Express, and even Agatha Christie fans will delight at the ghoulish surprises awaiting in The Limehouse Golem.